We are two-thirds of the way into the college football season – more in several cases. In most cases we know about how good most teams are by now. More importantly, by this point the general betting public feels very strongly that they know what football teams are like and what to expect from them. There is an opportunity to be had, then, every time that a college team performs better than they are perceived to be capable of. One type of team that can perform like this is one that started the season playing poorly but is quietly rounding into form. Because of their bad form they aren’t getting a lot of attention paid to them, so their improvement doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and the odds they face better reflect how they were than how they are. Here are four ways for college football handicappers to judge a team that could be ready to outperform their perceptions:
Improving QB play – This one should go without saying – the better a QB plays, the more likely a team is to succeed. With football teams that started out badly you can’t expect a quarterback to suddenly turn into a star. You don’t need them to do that, though. All sports bettors need to look for is one for whom the game is clearly slowing down and allowing them to make a higher percentage of correct decisions. The best single, simple measure for this is yards per attempt. When you compare this stat from game to game and you see a gradual but sustained improvement then you have a player who is getting easier to trust – and more likely to lead his team to success. YPA will also give you a sense of what is happening around the player – the YPA won’t increase unless the offensive line is playing decently and the running game is at least somewhat competent. Beyond that you can look at things like the TD/turnover ratio and whether it is improving, the QB rating (though there are lots of problems with that stat), and so on. If a QB is showing improvement then his play will obviously be better, but beyond that stronger QB play can have a positive effect on the rest of the team that can lift them to better play.
Young defensive line – More than many positions the defensive line takes a while to figure out and to get comfortable with at game speed. If a team has an ineffective defensive line then they aren’t getting pressure on the opposing QB, so their secondary will be worked too hard. The D line likely won’t be able to stop the run, either. Sometimes the problem with the defensive line is just that they aren’t very good. If the line is very young, though – freshman and sophomore first time starters across the board – then time can be a great remedy for the problems they have. With more time they get more experience learning about what it takes to play in college, and what they are up against. They also get more coaching – including important video evidence of their game play to learn from. If a team’s biggest problems early on can be traced to defense and specifically to the defensive line, and if that line is young, then there is a very good chance that that team will improve as the season progresses.
Net turnover improvement – This really is a combination of the last two points in a lot of ways. If a college team is struggling badly early on then there is a pretty good chance that they are consistently losing the turnover battle – perhaps badly. If they are starting to get the net turnovers more under control – and maybe even turning it around so it is in their favor – then the team really can’t help but improve. I don’t want to oversimplify and overstate things, but football teams that have positive net turnovers generally win and tend to be good picks, and vice versa.
New coach – If a college coach is in his first year and things start out badly that’s not typically a surprise. Quite often, though, these teams can start to get things together later in the season as the coach gets to know his players, players start to trust the coach, and the systems and schemes are better understood and implemented. That doesn’t mean that a first year coach will always be better in the second half of the season than the first. It often turns out that way, though. In high profile situations – like Brian Kelly at Notre Dame – the slow start is going to get so much negative attention that the public will totally and utterly give up on the team. If the lack of public attention is combined with signs of progress with the football team then smart college football handicappers can find a very nice combination of factors – inflated lines combined with a team increasingly capable of covering those lines.